How to Create your College List

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It is time again for rising 11th graders to start thinking about their college list, and for rising 12th graders to solidify theirs. So, where does an intrepid 11th grader begin, and a slightly behind schedule 12th grader turn for help? The truth is that most students begin in the worst possible place – US News and World Report’s college rankings. Don’t get me wrong, college rankings have their place in college admission, it is simply not the best place to start. The best place to start is alone in a silent room, asking yourself the right questions, and doing some serious soul-searching.

While it is certainly glamorous and satisfying to say that you got into a top 10 college, an Ivy League college, Stanford, Duke, U Chicago, USC, Northwestern, or one of the Little Ivies, it is far more important to consider how you want to be spending the next four years of your life—years that will likely impact how you will spend the rest of your life. Are you sure you want to attend a college simply because it has a prestigious name? Wouldn’t you rather spend the next four years nurturing an intrinsic desire you have to study in a particular field? Wouldn’t you rather feed your natural passion for learning a particular subject? And while it is definitely possible to have the best of all worlds, it is far more advisable to explore your passions than to trust a list based on various characteristics, many of which have nothing to do with you or the quality of education you will receive.

#1. Begin by analyzing your accomplishments to date­. Look collectively at your GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities, honors and awards, potential recommendations, and special accomplishments. Top colleges expect that the cumulative record you have managed to acquire will be in the top few percentiles nationally. After all, when it comes to top colleges, it is a sellers’ market meaning that there are far more students who want to attend than a college can possibly accept.

#2. Decide what you are truly passionate about and select colleges that can nurture that passion. Some majors, such as economics and biology, are quite common and many colleges could scratch your itch to learn these subjects. However, if your passion is less popular, e.g. art, music, biochemistry, or European history, make sure to include colleges that have strong programs in these areas. You can find this information on various search engines including, and Keep in mind that even though you don’t have to choose a major for most colleges, you do have to indicate your academic preferences. Those preferences should match up nicely with your accomplishments.

#3. Go into depth on each college’s website to explore some of the classes you would take. Determine if they are appealing to you. If you’d like, you can also investigate the accomplishments and current research of the professors and departments. Each college lists its current and past research on its website. If this research gets you excited, you may be a good match for that college. If possible, you should also visit a few of your favorite colleges. There is no better way to get a flavor for a college.

#4. Be realistic. Every college list should include the colleges you dream about. But you should also include colleges that you are likely to get into. In general, it makes sense to divide your list into reaches, target, and safeties. Overall, target schools should make up the biggest portion of your list, while safeties should make up the smallest portion. Also, don’t fall in love with any one college. Instead, keep your options and emotions open to multiple possibilities.

#5. Start with a list of 20 schools, then start to shave it down to a more reasonable number (10-15) by comparing each against the others on the list. Most shaving should occur within the safety category. For example, if both Bard and Bentley are safeties for you, which would you choose over the other? Then, eliminate the other one. By the way, it is perfectly fine for you to have a list of 20 colleges or even more as long as you are willing to put in the work and money that it takes to apply.

In general, the process of building a college list should be enjoyable, not stressful. After all, this is supposed to be one of the most exciting times of your life! Don’t make it super frustrating by worrying about creating the perfect list. There is no such thing. If you simply enjoy the process and learn enough about 20 colleges to know whether you would be happy and fulfilled on their campuses, you will have succeeded in creating the kind of list that will lead to perfect college choices for you.